Based only on reading the sonnet, the speaker may or may not be the poet (although, in fact, Millay did describe herself as the speaker, Gale). When reading love sonnets, most of us assume the poem reflects the poet’s personal feelings at the time of writing. However, just as writing in the fist person in novels is a literary technique, rather than a statement that the novel is autobiographical, Millay may have been writing from the point-of-view of another person, fictional or real, or even as she had felt at an earlier time. It’s true that at the time Millay was writing, the generic “he” or “man” was accepted usage, which certainly could explain her phrase “many a man” (line 7). However, it was not unusual for the term, in fact, to be used gender specifically, as in “All men are created equal, endowed with the same rights…” Regarding love relationships in particular, was there ever a time when “man” was used generically? Consider the question, “Why did early man take no responsibility in caring for his young?” If “man” and “his” were being used generically, it wouldn’t seem bizarre, as it clearly does, to rephrase the question, “Why did early men and women take no responsibility in caring for their young?” Thus the most reasonable conclusion would be that the speaker in the sonnet was a person questioning the strange phenomenon of people experiencing greater emotional intensity about a concept with no material value, romantic love, than they experience regarding material substances and abilities related to life and death, for example, being able to breathe (line 5).
However, for purposes of avoiding awkward repetitions (e.g., she or he), as well as knowledge that Millay did consider herself the speaker (Gale), the pronoun “she” has been used below to refer to the speaker. Describing what she was saying requires translating, so to speak, figurative- into literal language: The speaker was wondering why romantic love aroused such intense emotion when the concept isn’t even related to our material well-being. For survival, we need, not love, but food, water, shelter, and sleep. When in danger of drowning, we need a buoy, when we can’t breathe, we need to have air pumped into us, when we have an infection, we need antibiotics, and when we break a limb, what we need is a cast. Yet there are people who even plan and commit suicide when disappointed in romantic love. The speaker then wondered if she would forfeit her partner’s love even for a single night or forfeit even the memory of love experienced on a single night to be relieved of such states as horrible pain or starvation. (The wording used in this question, “this night,” line 13, suggested the speaker was having the thoughts in the sonnet while with her romantic partner.) The speaker concluded that she didn’t think so, although behavior was difficult to predict.
The speaker’s theme was that we experience emotions, in particular regarding romantic love, rational thought cannot explain. That the speaker seemed puzzled by this phenomenon suggested she was young (although the sonnet was one of a sequence of 52 published in 1931, Gale, and thus written when she over 35). Since the speaker was referring to intense emotion, there was no reason to assume she was unaware of emotions evoked by experiences unrelated to material well-being, such as viewing a painting or reading a poem. Recognize, however, that the speaker was referring to suffering in exchange for her lover remaining in love with her. When a teenager says “I’ll die if she dumps me” or if one with a penchant for hyperbole says “I’d rather burn in hell for all eternity than have him love someone else,” we might strongly suspect that these teenagers will “get dumped” and recognize the experience was preferable to dying or “burning in hell.” We might also suspect that they had never experienced even a prolonged and severe toothache, an idea the speaker herself suggested when acknowledging she had not yet experienced “a difficult hour” (line 9) of the kind she then described (lines 10 and 11). We would expect mainly younger people to be puzzled over intense emotions and behaviors evoked by occurrences unrelated to one’s own material well-being. I think people would be surprised if parents didn’t risk their lives running into burning buildings to try to save their children or choose to starve so their children could eat. Indeed, we refer to a person who drowned after jumping into the water in an effort to save an unknown child or was killed as a result of resisting a tyrannical political regime as “heroes”. The difference between poets and the unwashed masses is not in being more “sensitive” about romance, but in being able to use language to evoke universal emotions that most of us cannot articulate.
Regardless of how one categorizes emotions resulting from loss of another person’s love, the difficulty in using poetic techniques in Millay’s sonnet cannot be fully appreciated without recognizing the constraints imposed by the structure of traditional English sonnets. There must be 14 lines, with the first 12 divided into 3 4-line quatrains. Within the quatrains, the last words in lines 1 and 3 and in lines 2 and 4 must rhyme, and lines 13 and 14 do not rhyme. In “Love is Not All,” choices of some of the rhyming words successfully shared meaning, as “drink” and “sink” (lines 2 and 4) evoked an image related to water, as the absence of “breath” (line 5) implied “death” (line 7), and “release” and “peace” (lines 10 and 12) were evocative of “freedom.”
While the quatrains constrain rhyme, they do not constrain meaning, in the sense that lines 1-6 can express a single idea, lines 7-9, another idea, etc. In Millay’s sonnet, lines 1-6 provided examples of material needs required for survival, and the technique of repetition, “sink” (line 3) “And rise and sink and rise and sink again” (line 4) evoked an image of being alone in the dark in the middle of an ocean, bobbing wildly up and down, as a prelude to drowning. The image created by using words describing sensation, as in filling “the thickened lung with breath” (line 5), was of a rasping sound coming from mucous-filled lung. Lines 7 and 8 were about the extreme reaction of suicide to the loss of love and the metaphor of “making friends with death” (line 7) more powerfully described such a person’s feelings than the less specific word “suicide.” Lines 9-13 were about the speaker’s potential reaction to the choice of losing the love of her partner and bodily responses such as pain or the feeling that results from starvation. The metaphor of being “Pinned down by pain” (line 10) evoked an image of a person in a twisted position experiencing agonizing pain. The choice of the words of commerce, “sell” and “trade” (lines 12 and 13), probably influenced my perception of the speaker as youthful, considering withstanding intense physical suffering rather than losing the love of her partner a sign of “depth” or superior sensitivity. The tone of the conclusion (line 14) was disarmingly simple, quietly acknowledging lack of certainty.
Gale, Robert L. “Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Life.” Modern American Poetry, 2001. Retrieved
6 December 2008, from www.english.uluc.edu/maps/millay.html.
Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “Love is Not All.” Course handout.